What Is Barbacoa and How Do I Make It?

Learn about the origins of barbacoa and how to make it at home.

You probably love barbacoa and can order it with confidence, but you may not understand what it actually is other than an exceptionally tasty meal. Never fear — here's everything you need to know about this delectable slow-cooked meat.

What is barbacoa? 

The origin of the word barbacoa comes from the Taíno language, specifically in pre-Hispanic Cuba. “It referred generally to a wood-burning hole in the ground used to cook meats,” says Jonathan Zaragoza, executive chef of Birrieria Zaragoza in Chicago. Spanish colonists observed indigenous people in the Caribbean cooking their preserved meats on racks over small, smoky fires, then adopted the technique as well as the word. It is from barbacoa that we get barbecue. But while barbacoa and barbecue share a linguistic root, barbacoa is distinct from barbecue in a couple of key ways.

Barbacoa as we know it today evolved in Mexico, where the most classic barbacoa is made in an oven dug into the ground, lined with heated rocks that cook meat enclosed in agave leaves, which keep the meat moist as it cooks. The final result, juicy, tender, seasoned shredded steam-roasted meat (which may be beef, lamb, goat, or mutton depending on the region) is meltingly tender, and beloved for good reason. “Barbacoa isn’t just a dish, it’s deeper than that,” says Zaragoza. “It’s a method of cooking, an ancestral ritual, and for many, a religion. It’s cooked for weddings and other celebrations.” 

How barbacoa gets its flavor

An adobo marinade is what gives barbacoa its signature flavor. The marinade is commonly suffused with vinegar, a myriad of spices including cumin, Mexican oregano, garlic, and black peppercorns, plus regional chiles such as guajillo, ancho, and pasilla. Barbacoa also gets its flavor from the juices in the meat as it gently cooks for many hours. 


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How to make barbacoa at home 

Start by selecting the correct cut of meat. To achieve barbacoa’s signature fall-apart texture, it’s important to use larger, tougher cuts of meat that benefit from a low-and-slow cook time. For beef barbacoa, cheeks, chuck, or a combination of the two works best. For lamb, a shoulder or leg of lamb will yield that prized end result.

While the traditional method of an underground pit is wonderful, you don’t need to dig a giant hole in your backyard to cook barbacoa. If you have an oven, roasting pan, and foil you’re well on your way to making barbacoa, but a Crock Pot, slow cooker, or Instant Pot also work well. Barbacoa is a fantastic recipe you can start early in the morning and come back when ready for dinner. Whatever method you choose, keep in mind that extended cook time, and don’t skimp on the planning and preparation you need for barbacoa. 

How to serve barbacoa

Barbacoa can be served in a variety of ways, but salsas are the customary accompaniment. The most popular way to enjoy barbacoa is to serve it with tortillas, for barbacoa tacos. Zaragoza recommends making tacos dorados (fried tacos) and topping your barbacoa with Mexican crema, shredded cabbage, and salsa. Another great option is frijoles de la olla or simply stewed beans with a queso añejo (an aged queso fresco) and some avocado.

Any way you serve it, barbacoa is a celebratory dish. The moment you taste the tender, slow-cooked meat, you can’t help but close your eyes, smile, and think about how barbacoa just solved all your problems. 

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